Big in Japan… and England

August 19, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 12

covercoverSomewhere between Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, I decided that there was a certain affinity between the Land of the Rising Sun and “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” A namby-pamby assertion of ineffable spiritual kinship, however, will not make you any friends or apostles (except in academia).  No, what I needed to bolster my quixotic pursuit of a probably inane thesis were cold, hard factual similarities—ones you might sprinkle on your tonkatsu or your toad-in-the-hole, ones that might keep you dry in a rainstorm.  Frivolous it may be, but tell me after reading my list that you do you perhaps feel a little more hopeful about a key to all mythologies? Here they are, in no particular order:

  • hereditary royal families
  • island nations
  • love of tea, ceremonial and otherwise
  • white pepper instead of black pepper
  • fish for breakfast
  • bad teeth (few NHS dentists in Britain, don’t know about Japan)
  • gardeners, landscape painters (Turner, Constable; Hasui, Hokusai)
  • excellent makers of umbrellas (Maehara, Hiyoshia; James Smith and Sons)
  • colonialism/profound sense of racial superiority in the 19th /early 20th centuries (simultaneous colonial ventures in China)
  • English meat pies (Cornish pasties) / Japanese curry bread (curry doughnuts)
  • Worcestershire sauce /Fruit & Vegetable and Tonkatsu sauce
  • drive on the left-hand side of the road
  • national characters associated with repression, propriety, interpersonal chilliness
  • lovers of baths (shared bath water)
  • uniformed school children
  • makers of superior packaged foods/remarkable supermarkets

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. I’ve never thought of this before, but it makes total sense. I’m trying to think of things to add to the list now.

    If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend enough The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth (and Looking for the Lost ). He’s a Brit who ends up living in Japan for over 30 years, till he died. They are travel books, walking travel. Funny as hell, smart, and give a real sense of Japan, while making it clear it’s impossible to get a real sense of Japan.

  2. My husband reminded me that another thing they share is superior train/metro systems; and also that one prominent brand of fruit and vegetable sauce has a bulldog on its label–a sort of acknowledgement of the affinity between it and Worcestershire. Out here in CA, Japanese markets also tend to stock English foods–digestive biscuits, maltesers, marmite, things like that.

    I will check out the Booth–sounds to be the Japanese version of Paul Theroux’s Kingdom By the Sea, in which PT narrates his walk around Great Britain.

  3. Wow, I never realized this, but you’re right. (Still doesn’t explain my lifelong Anglophilia and deep loathing of Japan, where I lived for 6 months…)

    To these I would add: a certain fondness for Laura Ashley.

    But the punctuality of the trains and the quality of the food in Japan are alas not to be found in England…

  4. Shared lack of an obsessive interest in cosmetic dentistry is just the tip of the Anglo-Japanese healthcare iceberg – you forgot the rest of our pinko socialized medicine systems.

    I hadn’t realised that the funny black stuff I’ve been grinding onto my food all these years was actually called ‘white pepper’, but maybe my palate has been rendered insensate by a surfeit of meat pies and other poor-quality ‘English’ food. Either that or it’s something I’ve contracted via the shared bath water.

  5. Admittedly, the shared English bath water citation is based solely on one anecdote from the 70’s. The attempted bath water sharing took place in Southend–perhaps it is merely one of the customs of the country in Essex? Perhaps outgrown by the lush Thatcherite era? Or perhaps particular only to my English family?

    Ah! “the Anglo-Japanese healthcare iceberg”–what a lovely phrase! My dear Disgruntled Blighter, thank you for reading. And you know who to come to if you have any amateur cultural anthropology that needs doing.

  6. Thank you Emily! I shall be sure to reference you in my forthcoming monograph ‘Edo and the East Saxons: Some Ethnolavatorial Comparanda’. In fact I believe that the very bathwater you mention is still in regular use in Shoeburyness, Leigh-on-Sea and environs.

  7. As an American who has lived and worked three years in Britain and has lived and worked nine years in Japan, I can say that Emily is wrong,
    To my mind the only real similarities between the two countries are driving on the left, island nations, and hereditary monarchies–none of which have much to do with the qualities of life, social mores, or anything else important.

  8. A few other corrections: Black pepper is common in England… ‘Remarkable supermarkets’? what do you mean by that? I mean sainsbury’s is very nice, but really, not much in terms of scale or variety…American supermarkets boggle the mind. The first one I went into I staggered out with only a box of cornflakes because I was so bamboozled by whole aisles devoted to apple puree or pancake syrup.

    And Island Nation for England…? Well, England is not an island in and of itself, it is ON an island. Next to Wales and Scotland. The confusion between ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ is a source of great irritation for these two countries. Really. Quick way to start a fight in Scotland at least, is to think they are a part of England.

  9. Perhaps I should have referred to both as “kingdoms by the sea”? My apologies to any Caledonian readers for my sloppy implication that England and Britain are synonymous. And yes, it was Sainsbury’s I was thinking of. Little individual servings of excellent tiramisu…I get wistful just thinking about them.

  10. interesting list… a professor at my alma mater (wesleyan) used to teach a course about the UK and Japan… ishiguro himself has interesting things to say abou the similarities and bridges the two cultures in intriguing ways…

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